How Are TV Networks Just Like Kimmy Schmidt?

They're in the dark when it comes to streaming data, but Nielsen may change all that

The television networks are kind of like the main character in Tina Fey's new sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, who is released back into the world from an underground cult—they're in the dark about how their shows perform on Netflix and other over-the-top services. But the nets are about to get a flood of new data from Nielsen.

The research giant this month moved into the commercial stage for a service that will track what consumers watch by picking up audio cues that detect when viewers go "off the reservation" of linear TV. The service will provide data about what the shows' viewers are watching on streamed subscription-on-demand services.

The networks will only receive information about their own shows and not original programming on OTT services. Still, the new service is seen as an important first step that could go a long way toward solving a problem that's plagued programmers for years.

Richard Taub, svp of broadcast and digital services at Media Audits International, said his firm hears a lot of frustration from clients because services like Netflix and Amazon "provide zero or little transparency regarding content usage data."

For the networks, when one of their shows turns out to be a hit on OTT services, they remain unaware, as neither Netflix nor Amazon shares numbers. Also, programmers struggle to fully prove a show's value when it comes to international syndication. The networks and advertisers could find Nielsen's new service an important tool when it comes to marketing their content.

And there are other benefits, TV execs said. "It allows us to better understand the content that I have on these providers," said Don Roberts, svp of research and analytics at A+E Networks. "How beneficial is it to drum up, if you will, new audiences to come back to watch our programs on our own [channels]?"

Howard Shimmel, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting System, noted another selling point. "We launched Legends this year with a VOD preview, and we drove a significant audience to the [first episode on TNT]," he said. Not being able to ascertain the same viewer info for SVOD "is obviously a problem."

Measuring viewing on platforms with no ads would not seem to mean all that much to advertisers. Still, Horizon Media svp, research Brad Adgate said he plans to keep an eye on the data.

"There's been a decline in usage [of linear TV] this year, particularly in young adults," he pointed out. "People who subscribe to over-the-top services tend to be lighter viewers of television, but that can have an impact on declining ratings for broadcast and cable networks."

UPDATE: Nielsen expects that it will have enough information from the audio-cue tracking service to start disseminating data and insights to its clients later this year, according to a Bloomberg interview with Nielsen CEO Mitch Barns, posted March 24.

It's really up to the networks to figure out how to use such information about the competition.

"Generally what happens when we introduce new products like this, and clients are only seeing information about their own programs … is that eventually the [information] becomes shared or syndicated," says Brian Fuhrer, svp of product leadership at Nielsen.

There is an important disclaimer. Netflix is not a Nielsen client, sources say, and the company will not let on whether it has the technical capability to measure programs like Kimmy Schmidt without the platform's buy-in.